Reflections on victory in the Sacred Headwaters

When I heard the government of British Columbia’s announcement that no oil or gas drilling would be allowed in the Sacred Headwaters, my eyes welled up with tears. I’m a sucker for situations where strong, committed people overcome the combined forces of huge corporations and their allies in government.

The Tahltan’s fight to protect the Sacred Headwaters – the birthplace of three sacred salmon rivers: the Nass, Stikine and Skeena – has been epic.

Their victory against Shell Oil may seem like a quintessential David and Goliath victory, but not to anyone who has looked into the eyes of dogged Tahltan activists. If you had looked folks such as Lillian Moyer, Rhoda Quock, Peter Jeketera, Oscar and James Dennis, Rita Louie, John Noles, Irma and Jim Bourquin, Mable Dennis, Jerry Quock or Bertha Louie in the eyes back in 2003, you too would know for certain they would not be defeated.

I first met these unacknowledged heroes in 2003 when rafting guide, activist and Iskut resident Jim Bourquin called me and asked for help. He was working with the Tahltan, who were facing off against Shell over coalbed methane drilling.

At the time, Dogwood Initiative was one of the only groups working on coalbed methane issues. Bourquin and the Tahltan were concerned because Shell had already drilled three wells and blasted a road. He and his Tahltan colleagues were desperate. Other non-profits were working in the area but their priority was Nova Gold’s since abandoned Galore copper-gold mine and he could not get any help fighting against Shell.

At Bourquin’s request, I traveled to Iskut and presented a workshop on coalbed methane. After my presentation I got a chance to talk to Tahltan elders such as Lillian Moyer, Bertha Louie and James Dennis. As someone on an eternal quest for those ephemeral moments in time where people come together and collectively do extraordinary things, I quickly realized these Tahltan elders were extraordinary. I told them if they were prepared to fight, I would do whatever I could to help them.

Little did I know working closely with these elders to save their Sacred Headwaters would consume the next three years and become one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

These years were a roller coaster as pressure from Shell and later from coal company Fortune Minerals, mounted. We tried every tactic we could from legally asserting title and battling injunctions, to door knocking in communities, jamming Shell’s AGM in the Hague and taking out ads in the Financial Times. We hijacked the Shell-sponsored Canadian Environmental Awards, distributed what became Canada’s second most viral political YouTube video of the year (British Columbia: Nigeria North?), and spent hours on the phone. It was exhausting, but exciting.

At the time, Dogwood Initiative was barely able to financially keep its head above water; many were telling us to close up shop. But personally, I was fuelled by the passion and commitment of my Tahltan colleagues – if they were willing to fight the long odds of success then so was I.

We both persevered.

In recent years neither Dogwood Initiative nor I have been actively involved in fighting Shell to protect the Sacred Headwaters. In 2007, my daughter was born four months prematurely and I dropped out to spend 110 days with her in the intensive care unit. New hire Eric Swanson, Dogwood’s current Campaigns Director, took over and continued working until a critical mass of funded groups (Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition , Forest Ethics and others) came on board.

Together they have run a spectacular campaign. It should serve as a case study of how a small group of dedicated people can hold off and ultimately beat the biggest and most powerful forces in the world.

Congratulations to my Tahltan friends. You are my heroes. I miss you and hope to join you in the New Year for the biggest party imaginable.

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